The Risings Three Years On

When the fruit and vegetables peddler Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the rural Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010, his spontaneous act comprised a combination of protest, self-assertion and defiance that resonated instantly and widely across the entire Arab world.

I have learned in life that when you have a problem to ponder or stress to overcome, you should resort to one of three options: take a nap, listen to music, or just wait and let some time pass. The last option is particularly helpful when you are trying to understand the significance of political developments of the day, such as this week’s third anniversary of the initiation of the current Arab uprisings by Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation. The passage of three years allows us to better understand what is going on across the Arab region in a way that was not so clear in December 2010.

When the fruit and vegetables peddler Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the rural Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010, his spontaneous act comprised a combination of protest, self-assertion and defiance that resonated instantly and widely across the entire Arab world. It launched a series of rolling protests and revolutions that have morphed into wars and chaotic conditions in some countries, and slow constitutional transformations in others.

Dramatic and unpredictable developments almost certainly await us in the years ahead. For now, though, here is my assessment of how to appreciate what has been going on across the Arab world during the last three years.

  1. The initial sense that we experienced spontaneous popular revolutions to overthrow dictators and replace them with more democratic governance systems was certainly correct for those heady days in early 2011. The slow and erratic progress to that end in different Arab countries indicates that this remains a goal across most countries, but also that we are dealing with much bigger processes and deeper forces than merely linear democratic governance transitions, such as were experienced more smoothly, for example, in post-Franco Spain or post-military junta Greece.

  2. It seems clear now that democratization is only one technical aspect of a much wider historical transformation that is playing itself out in different ways across the region, and that relates much more powerfully to the two foundational elements of national and personal life—the concepts of modern Arab statehood and citizenship. Neither statehood nor citizenship were ever defined by the collective will of free Arab men and women, but now we witness some Arab countries grappling with these issues for the first time ever, and in most cases this is occurring in a very messy and inconsistent way. That is the historical norm across the world, and Arabs finally are resuming their place in world history, after a century of absence due to colonial or homegrown dictatorships.

    Rather than dealing mainly with democratic revolutions, as was the perception three years ago, it now appears clearer with hindsight that we are dealing with far more complex issues related to how individual men and women shape and ensure their rights as citizens within the larger units of their own ethnic, tribal and sectarian identities and their own sovereign state. All of these levels are being defined and anchored at the same time.

    3. This process has been messy, erratic, and often violent for four main reasons that seem pertinent right now:

    a) the brutal military response of some Arab regimes who are willing to destroy their country in order to remain in power, which has seen some countries sink into devastating wars that accentuated tribal and sectarian forces that in turn made democratic transitions impossible;

    b) the total, almost absolute, lack of experience among individuals or groups in democratic practices in the Arab region, which made it very difficult to script a smooth constitutional transition to democratic pluralism, even though Tunisia and Egypt continue to forge ahead on this enticing path;

    c) the continued assertion of the sense of entitlement to rule by military and security authorities in most countries;

    d) the extensive web of regional and foreign interventions in the domestic affairs of Arab countries in transition, including traditional players like the United States, France, Britain, Iran, Turkey and Russia, and newfound regional military and financial activism by Hizbullah, Saudi-led Gulf countries, and transnational Salafist-takfiri groups; this short circuited the initial democratic transitions and transformed them into regional or global proxy wars that are much more violent and difficult to resolve.

    4. Therefore we witness across the Arab world a most complicated convergence of historical dynamics of stunted statehood and post-colonial (Western) and neo-imperial (Iranian-Saudi) interventions, with the aspirations of millions of citizens to live freely and securely in societies that respect their rights and offer them basic opportunities to live a decent life. All the accumulated ills, distortions, crimes and incompetencies of the past century of Arab history are now being flushed out into the open, in order to be replaced by something better in the business of governance, development, citizenship and statehood. For the first time ever, this process may occur according to the wishes of the citizens themselves.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

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